Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Fanny Burney and Mothers of the Novel

Fanny Burney (born 13 June 1752)

A few years ago, I was fortunate to have in class a wonderful student who had returned to college after taking several years off. She had a family, a job, and a full load of classes. She also had a problem--she needed one more class in her major so she could graduate at last, and when it came time to register for her final semester, nothing fit into her schedule. She had one other problem too--she was frustrated that she hadn't read any women novelists aside from Jane Austen.

Fanny Burney, c. 1784,
in a portrait by Edward Francisco Burney--
and I want that hat!!
So we sat down to think through an independent study, she bought a copy of Dale Spender's Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen, and we began putting together a syllabus. As I recall (I'm sure I still have a copy of her proposal on a thumbdrive somewhere, but I'm too lazy to search it out), she put a good ten or twelve novels on her reading list--a number I thought was completely unrealistic--but she wasn't willing to cut down the list. She was excited and ambitious.

She read Aphra Behn's Oronooko and was ready to start on Maria Edgeworth, but then decided to skip ahead to the heftiest book on her desk, Fanny Burney's Camilla, published in 1796. And that was as far as she got on her original list. It wasn't that the novel (which runs to 900 pages in the paperback edition on my shelf) was so long that she couldn't finish it and quit--it was, rather, that once she had raced through it, she was on to the rest of Burney's novels. What had started out as a sort of survey of women novelists turned into an intensive reading of Fanny Burney. And that was fine with me.

I'm sure it would have been fine with Virginia Woolf, too. Of the key role that Burney played for the women writers who would come after her, Woolf famously wrote, "Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney" (from the fourth chapter of A Room of One's Own).

The self-educated Burney had begun her career in "scribbling," as she called it, when she was a child, writing in a journal for her own amusement. She published her first novel, Evelina; Or a History of a Young Woman's Entry into the World, in 1778, writing anonymously and arranging for publication without the knowledge of her father. (Burney wrote in secret and even disguised her handwriting so no one would be able to recognize the manuscript as hers.) The novel was a great success.

Burney went on to write plays, three more novels (the last, The Wanderer, published in 1812), and to continue her journal writing, which extended for some seventy-two years after the first entry, dated 27 March 1768. Although her authorship was revealed shortly after Evelina's publication by George Huddesford in his "Warley, a Satire" (1778), subsequent novels continued to be published without her name. Her next, Cecilia, was written by "the author of Evelina," Camilla "by the author of Evelina and Cecilia," The Wanderer "by the author of EvelinaCecilia, and Camilla."

In 1810, suffering from pains in her breast, she consulted physicians and was diagnosed with breast cancer. On 30 September 1811, she had a mastectomy, operated on by doctors she described as "7 men in black" and without anaesthesia (for a brief history of surgery before the advent of anaesthesia, click here). Burney survived both breast cancer and surgery--she died on 6 January 1840.

All of Burney's novels are available online today: Evelina and Camilla are at A Celebration of Women Writers, all four are available through Project Gutenberg. In addition, all of the novels are available in affordable paperback editions, like the Oxford World's Classics edition of Evelina I've linked to above.

Claire Harmon's Fanny Burney: A Biography seems to be out of print, but used copies are readily available. Margaret Ann Doody's excellent Frances Burney: The Life in the Works combines biography and careful critical assessment of all Burney's literary output, including the plays, poetry, journals, and letters.